'High courts better at local level': Bar body on SC taking up suo motu cognizance of COVID-19 situation

NEW DELHI: The Supreme Court on Friday advised High Courts to avoid unnecessary “off-the-cuff remarks” during hearings, a call that came against the backdrop of stinging observations made by some of them against the Centre and state governments over their handling of the escalating COVID-19 crisis.

The call by the apex court that it expects a “degree of respect and restraint” since the remarks may have serious ramifications also came on a day when the Election Commission of India(ECI) moved the Madras High Court seeking to restrain the media from reporting its strong oral observations on the poll body’s role in conducting elections amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The ECI’s plea was, however, rejected by the high court.

“Even when we are criticising a judgement of a High Court, we do not say exactly what is in our heart and we exercise a degree of restraint. We would only expect that as freedom has been given to the High Courts to deal with these issues, certain off-the-cuff remarks, which are not necessary may be avoided,” said a bench of the top court headed by Justice D Y Chandrachud.

The bench also comprised Justices L Nageswara Rao and S Ravindra Bhat.

The apex court’s advise came during hearings on the COVID-19-related pleas after Solicitor General Tushar Mehta and senior advocate Ranjit Kumar, appearing for the Centre and the Bihar government respectively, said such remarks gave the impression as if authorities were doing nothing.

The high courts of Madras and Delhi have been very critical, making strong observations against the Centre and various authorities for the way they have been handling the severe second wave of COVID-19.

The Madras High Court had on Monday castigated the ECI over the COVID-19 second wave in the country, holding it ‘singularly’ responsible for the spread, called it “the most irresponsible institution” and even said its officials may be booked under murder charges.

The ECI allowing political parties to take out rallies and meetings had led to the spread of the pandemic, the court had said.

The Delhi High Court while addressing the issue of shortage of oxygen cylinders and Remdesivir injections during one of the hearings in the recent days on the COVID situation had told the Centre, “It appears you want people to die.”

“Don’t change the protocol only to reduce the shortage. That is wrong. As a result, doctors are not able to prescribe Remdesivir,” a bench of the court said, and added “This is complete mismanagement.”

“You are not exploring all avenues to augment oxygen supply. Beg, borrow or steal or do whatever and supply oxygen to hospitals,” said another bench of the court to the Centre.

ALSO READ | ‘Clampdown on information will be treated as contempt of court’: Key points from SC’s Covid-19 hearing

“Our confidence(in you) is shaken, Get your house in order,” the bench also told the Delhi government on lack of supervision over oxygen distribution by refillers in the national capital.

On Friday, the high court also said the State has failed to protect the right to life of citizens, adding, “we all have failed.”

At the apex court, the lawyers, who brought up the issue of harsh remarks by the high courts, said Government officials, including those who are COVID-19 infected, are working tirelessly to deal with the pandemic situation.

Castigating officers on duty is “very demoralising”, Ranjit Kumar said.

The bench said judges also know that this is a new time where, every word said by them become part of social media.

“All we can say that we expect a degree of respect and restraint”.

The top court said particularly, in sensitive matters, it tended to exercise some caution and restraint.

“It is not because we are fearful of our remarks. Of course, we are independent. It is only because of the serious ramifications which off-the-cuff remarks about private citizens may have,” Justice Chandrachud said.

“Sometimes judges make some observations to elicit proper response from lawyers, which should not be considered as those remarks against anyone,” the bench said.

The bench said when judges say something in court, it is only to elicit information and response from lawyers so as to enable an open dialogue.

“It is not the conclusion on anything, it is only to test the hypothesis of the lawyer and the other side”, it added.

Sometimes, high court judges are stressed about local conditions and at times, they may make strong remarks, the bench said, adding but “we must not be so fragile as to get offended by them”.

In Chennai, the ECI’s counsel told the High Court that comments of murder charges against its officials and the institution being solely responsible for the surge in COVID-19 cases had caused great damage and tarnished the poll body’s image.

The court refused to restrain the media, both electronic and print, from publishing the oral observations of the judges relating to the role of the ECI in holding elections to four states and the Union Territory of Puducherry during the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Let us leave that (matter) at it,” was the reply of Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee and Justice Senthilkumar Ramamoorthy when the matter with regard to lapses in procuring COVID-19 vaccines, providing beds and ventilators and the alleged diversion of oxygen cylinders to other states came up again on Friday.

The court had taken up the matter on its own.

“The post-mortem on either count may have to wait, particularly in the light of immediate measures that may be put in place,” the CJ quipped when the EC senior counsel moved the court with the prayer to restrain the media from sensationalising the issue.

It was a very difficult job to hold the elections during these difficult times.

Based on the observations of the courts, certain people have approached the police with complaints and the latter had filed FIRs too, the ECI counsel said and prayed for some sort of protection.

“The courts concerned would take care of such frivolous complaints being filed against the ECI. let’s not play a blame game,” the CJ said.